Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta are among those Pope Francis appointed today to the organizing committee for next February’s meeting of presidents of bishops’ conferences to discuss the protection of minors in the Church.
In a statement released on Friday, the Vatican said they will be joined by Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, India, and Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the Centre for the Protection of Minors at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Father Zollner, who is also member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, will be the contact person for the committee, the Vatican said.
In September, Pope Francis called for the special Feb. 21-24 meeting, whose official theme is the “protection of minors and vulnerable adults,” following a raft of revelations of historical clerical abuse cases in various parts of the world.
The Vatican also announced on Friday that, as well as the conference presidents, those taking part in the meeting will include the heads of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches; “superiors” from the Secretariat of State; heads of various curial dicasteries (the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, Oriental Churches, Bishops, the Evangelization of Peoples, Clergy, Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life, and the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life), as well as representatives of the Union of Superiors General and of the International Union of Superiors General.
The preparatory work for the meeting will involve the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, along with some victims of clerical sex abuse, as well as two women: Gabriella Gambino, undersecretary for the section for life, and Linda Ghisoni, undersecretary for the section for the lay faithful, of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.
In comments to the media, Holy See Press Office Director Greg Burke said the meeting “is unprecendented” and shows the Pope “has made the protection of minors a fundamental priority for the Church.”
“This is about keeping children safe from harm worldwide,” Burke said. “Pope Francis wants Church leaders to have a full understanding of the devastating impact that clerical sexual abuse has on victims.”
He added that the meeting “is primarily one for bishops – and they have much of the responsibility for this grave problem,” but that “lay men and women who are experts in the field of abuse will give their input, and can help address especially what needs to done to ensure transparency and accountability.”
Archbishop Scicluna is included among the members because of his long experience of conducting investigations into sexual abuse by clergy on behalf of the Holy See. Pope Francis recently appointed him adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican dicastery responsible for dealing with clerical abuse cases.
In a Nov. 23 interview with Vatican Media, Father Zollner said the meeting will be “very important for the Church” and that the committee will be in charge of both “logistics and content, according to the directions given by the Holy Father.”
Father Zollner said a questionnaire will be sent to participants beforehand so they can “share experiences, difficulties, as well as possible solutions to deal with this terrible scandal.” He said the meeting should be “as free and fruitful as possible” and consultation will be wide. The Pontifical Commission will play a significant role in the preparation of the meeting which will also reflect the Pope’s emphasis on synodality and collegiality, Father Zollner said.
Cardinal Cupich said Nov. 20 he believed the meeting will be a “watershed moment in the life of the Church” and that “time and again” the Pope “has shown his resolve to comprehensively address this scourge.”
The archbishop of Chicago, who, like the Holy Father, has frequently blamed the crisis primarily on “clericalism,” said Francis is “calling for radical reform in the life of the Church, for he understands that this crisis is about the abuse of power and a culture of protection and privilege, which have created a climate of secrecy, without accountability for misdeeds.”
“All of that has to end, not only in terms of how it risks the safety of children, but also how the abuse of power by certain leaders undermines the Gospel and injures the faith lives of the people the ordained have been sent to serve,” Cardinal Cupich said.
In the collective assessment of informed commentators who spoke with the Register in September, the planned meeting will be effective only if its mandate includes the drafting of norms to hold bishops accountable and a discussion of how central homosexuality has been to the problem of clergy sexual abuse.
Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, a former executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Doctrine, said it will become clear “how serious” the Holy Father is about tackling the problem if the February meeting addresses “the issue of active homosexuality among the clergy and the bishops.” Citing both the 2004 John Jay Report on clerical sex abuse in the U.S. and this year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, Father Weinandy said it has “become quite evident that priests and bishops engage in homosexual activity.”
The February meeting will follow a series of clerical sex abuse revelations, including the Aug. 14 Pennsylvania grand jury report, which asserted that more than 300 priests abused minors over seven decades and that those crimes were covered up by bishops in six dioceses.
Other revelations include thousands of historical clergy sex-abuse cases over a similar period in Germany and the Netherlands; and further cases in Chile, Australia and elsewhere, including the Pope’s reported involvement in a high-profile Argentinian case that came to national attention while he was serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The meeting will also be held in the context of revelations that some bishops allegedly have been either involved in abuse or in subsequent cover-ups. Most prominently, this includes the archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick.
In June, it was disclosed that the Archdiocese of New York had received “credible and substantiated” allegations that Archbishop McCarrick had sexually abused a minor male altar server during the early 1970s and that, during the time he served as a bishop in New Jersey, he had also faced allegations of sexual misconduct with seminarians and priests that later resulted in a pair of legal settlements.
This was followed by claims made in late August by the former nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, that from shortly after the time of his election Pope Francis had been informed about Archbishop McCarrick’s abuses, as well as about measures reportedly put in place against him by Pope Benedict XVI, and that the Holy Father nevertheless gave the archbishop renewed influence in the Church.
The Pope has not directly addressed the claims, but last month the Vatican announced a “thorough study” would be made of all the documentation contained in the Vatican archives in order to “ascertain all the relevant facts” surrounding the ex-cardinal.
Meanwhile, in Honduras, the Pope in July accepted the resignation of Auxiliary Bishop Juan José Pineda of Tegucigalpa, following allegations he had sexually abused seminarians. Before his resignation, Bishop Pineda had been defended by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, who is also the head of the Pope’s council of cardinals.
In his Nov. 23 interview, Father Hans Zollner said the Pope is “convinced” that this “plague,” and what Francis has many times called a “sacrilege,” is a “problem that does not affect a single country and certainly not only western countries” but “touches all countries.”
“That places us as believers before the mystery of evil,” Father Zollner said, “and the need to fight it all the way, without hesitation.”